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Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature Hardcover – January 9, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), creator of the immortal Peter Rabbit, is known as an avid writer of comical illustrated letters to friends and as an assertive marketer of her illustrations, and this lively volume also captures her energetic participation in Victorian-era natural history research and conservation. Environmental historian Lear (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature) relates that, as a child in an upper-middle-class family, Potter sketched flowers, dead animals and live lizards, insects and rodents that she brought home. "Rabbits were caught, tamed, sketched, painted" by young Beatrix and her brother, Bertram. In 1893, while traveling with her pet rabbit, Peter Piper, and seeking unusual fungi with self-taught mycologist Charles McIntosh, Potter jotted an illustrated note "about a disobedient young rabbit called 'Peter' " to an ailing child friend and sketched Peter's nemesis, a McIntosh–look-alike farmer called Mr. McGregor, creating "two fictional characters that one day would be world-famous." Lear judges Potter "a brilliant amateur" naturalist who expressed strong convictions about land preservation. Potter's witty journals, with their close observations of people, animals, objects and places, serve as the basis for Lear's engrossing account, which will appeal to ecologists, historians, child lit buffs and those who want to know the real Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Benjamin Bunny. A movie, Miss Potter, also releases in January. 16 pages of color illus., 8 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Beatrix Potter had a passion for place that found aesthetic expression in the beautifully realized natural settings of her celebrated children's books (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, etc.) and also practical expression in her less-well-known role as a successful landowner, farm manager, and sheep breeder. Accordingly, Lear, who is a professor of environmental history, gives special attention to the places that provided the settings for Potter's books and for her real-life evolution as a shrewd businesswoman and ardent preservationist of the rural landscape of her beloved Lake District (when she died in 1943, she left vast holdings of land and property to Britain's National Trust). The social settings and circumstances of Potter's early life as a Victorian child of sometimes stultifying privilege are also beautifully realized. And Lear's depiction of Potter's later struggle for personal and financial independence invests an otherwise quiet life with drama and even a degree of suspense. Potter was a famously close observer of the world around her, and Lear is an equally close observer of her subject. The result is a meticulously researched and brilliantly re-created life that, despite its length and accretion of detail, is endlessly fascinating and often illuminating. It is altogether a remarkable achievement. Michael Cart
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 to wealthy Victorian parents. From early childhood, she was passionately interested in the natural world and drew what she saw in meticulous, painstaking detail, using as models the many animals that she and her brother collected during family holidays. These animal drawings became increasingly imaginative until they at last came to life in the delightful characters that populate The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and other books, all of which became phenomenal bestsellers.
In 1905, after the death of her fiancé and editor, Norman Warne, Potter used the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from an aunt to purchase a farm in the hamlet of Near Sawrey, in the Lake District. There, she met Willie Heelis, a country lawyer who in 1913 became her husband, and together they set about fulfilling a dream they shared: preserving and protecting the Lake District from the despoliation of commercial development. They lived and worked happily together until 1943, when Beatrix Potter Heelis died.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is the most exhaustive and rigorous examination of Potter's life to date. Linda Lear skillfully covers the material that's been been made available by earlier biographers, Margaret Lane and Judy Taylor: the solitary childhood, the astonishing literary success, the dutiful attention to elderly parents, the retirement to marriage and rural farming life. But Lear breaks a good deal of new ground, as well, taking us deep into the experience of a gifted but very private woman with a "talent for reinventing herself." She not only tells the riveting story of a woman who seems to have led three lives, but also fully and meticulously documents her sources. Scholars will appreciate the endnotes, sources, references, and lists of primary and secondary material that Lear has provided, for it is the first time in the history of Potter scholarship that such a full and complete documentation has been made.
However, Lear never allows her responsibilities as a scholar to overshadow her fascination with the human story of Beatrix Potter. With tact, sensitivity, and a profound respect, she goes deeply within her subject to bring us a woman whose tragedies and triumphs seem very personal, compellingly immediate, and entirely real. Lear demonstrates that throughout Potter's long life, her imagination was fueled by a passion for nature, whether this was expressed in drawings of rabbits in blue coats with brass buttons, or in paintings of fungi, lovingly rendered, or in her love for the tenacious Herdwick sheep that populated the hills of the Lake District, or in her profound admiration for the traditional Lakeland lifeways of farmers and artisans. Within the larger context of environmental history that this biography provides, it is easy to see why and how Beatrix Potter became one of England's most important preservationists and greatest benefactors, leaving some 4,300 acres, including 15 farms, dozens of cottages, houses, and over 500 acres of woods to the National Trust. It was a magnificent gift, a model for gifts to come, and still, to this day, unique.
As is this biography. If you've enjoyed Beatrix Potter's "little books" or the movie, Miss Potter, you will want to read it.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Hill Top Farm, The Tale of Holly How, The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, The Tale of Hawthorn House, and four other forthcoming novels in the series. This review is excerpted from a longer review published on the website of the Story Circle Network.
As a child I received the books one by one as gifts from grandparents. Of all the books I've had, these tiny books went with me to college, grad school, to my home and now reside on my shelves in a Carmelite Monastery.
The book is so wonderful to include so many snippets of her letters, journal entries and reminisces of her friends. The author is so very evenhanded in writing of the times of Beatrix' life, her passion and dream, the prophetic dimension of her life's works. Thank you!
Miss Potter was a most extraordinary young woman to say the least. The obstacles she had to overcome proved her to be a woman of great imagination and courage; her determination to be her own person, in spite of the societal challenges she faced shaped her into a woman of depth and devotion to her dreams and visions.
Over the course of her life, Beatrix Potter lived two greatly different lifestyles. First as an author and finally as a farmer; fortunately for her, her first life as an author helped her accomplish the dream of her second life, as Mrs. William Heelis, in the gift of thousands of acres of land in the English Lake District to the National Trust to be preserved for the people of England.
I would encourage all who have enjoyed Peter Rabbit to find out more about the exceptional woman who started it all.
This book is a worthy addition to anyone's library.
The Kindle version is especially helpful in allowing access to the endnotes without the need to flip back and forth between the two sections, though it also means the end sneaks up on the reader. The pictures (on Kindle Touch) are adequate though the maps suffer a bit.